Ryan is allergic to milk, please be sure he isn’t served milk...Jennifer is allergic to peanuts, she must avoid all foods with peanuts...Lindsey is allergic to milk and eggs, do not allow her to eat foods with either of these ingredients...
It isn’t surprising to find a wide range of food allergy information on student’s health forms these days. Studies show that food allergies affect up to 2 1/2 million children. Six foods account for 90 percent of all allergic reactions to foods in children: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, and soy. Most children will outgrow their food allergies with the exception of peanut and tree nut allergy, which are considered life-long.
There is no cure for food allergy; strict avoidance is the key to averting allergic symptoms. These can include skin symptoms such as hives, eczema, swelling of the eyes, lips, or hands; gastrointestinal upset including abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea; and respiratory tract symptoms including asthma, wheezing, runny nose, or nasal congestion.
In some cases, children may experience severe allergic reactions. This type of reaction, called anaphylaxis, includes symptoms such as swelling of the throat and tongue, difficulty breathing, drop in blood pressure, and loss of consciousness. If left untreated, these reactions can be life threatening. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1992 showed that four of the six cases of fatal food-allergy induced anaphylaxis occurred while the child was at school. Lack of a plan of action for allergic emergencies is believed to have been a factor in the deaths.
What You Can Do
Managing food allergies in the early childhood classroom requires the participation and cooperation of parents and students. Parents of children who have food allergy should provide teachers and other school staff with written information from their physician regarding what foods to avoid, appropriate substitutions, symptoms to look for, and medications needed in case of an allergic reaction. The following suggestions will help you create a safe classroom environment that enables all students to participate in all class activities.
- There are several options for handling food in the classroom. Some programs allow only fresh fruits and vegetables to be served as snacks or during class parties and celebrations. Others require that any food sent in from home must be commercially prepared and contain a preprinted ingredient statement. The teacher, parents, or child should review all ingredient labels to be sure the food does not contain potential allergy-causing ingredients.
- Yet another option is to provide non-edible treats for class parties or celebrations. For example, invite a parent to celebrate a child’s birthday by reading a book to the class and donating that book to the school library. Or encourage parents to send in stickers, colorful pencil erasers, sports cards, and other child-friendly collectibles.
- Holidays can be celebrated by replacing food such as cake and cookies with a focus on making costumes or pictures depicting what that holiday means to each student. Lessons about the culture and food of various countries can be taught by reading stories about that country and providing pictures of traditional dishes.
- When food is served, be sure to wipe surfaces clean with disinfectant and encourage children to wash their hands after meals and snacks.
Finally, in spite of everyone’s best efforts, accidents may occur. Be sure you understand what the symptoms of a reaction might be and what you should do if one occurs. Think about whom will accompany the student to the emergency room, and who will stay with the rest of the class. Studies show that quick action is the key to controlling allergic reactions. Practice the plan as you would a fire drill so that you and your students know what to do when a reaction occurs.
Regardless of how you choose to handle food allergies in the classroom, it is important to remember that you are not expected to do this without the support and guidance of the child’s parents. Notify them in advance of any class celebrations and field trips, ask them to review potential risks and help you create safe alternatives.
Managing food allergies in a child care center requires a team effort between parents and staff. Although the prospect of managing food allergies in school can seem overwhelming or impossible, keep in mind that you are not alone. Planning ahead is the key to success.
Anne Munoz-Furlong is the founder of The Food Allergy Network, a national nonprofit organization established to provide education and increase public awareness about food allergies.
For a free poster or more information, contact The Food Allergy Network, 10400 Eaton Place, Suite 107, Fairfax, VA 22030 or call 800-929-4040. For a copy of “Managing Food Allergies in School and Other Child Care Settings” position paper by the AmericanAcademy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, call 800-822-2762. You can also visit their website at www.aaaai.org.